I got this question from GM in the Masked Mailbox:
“If the No. 1 comedy on TV is a multi-camera sitcom, no type of show is more profitable in success than a multi-cam and they are the least expensive scripted pilots to produce, why aren’t networks making more of them?”
I am asked this a lot and, honestly, I think about it all the time. After all I put together the legendary, or infamous, 18-comedy schedule at NBC during the final season of “Seinfeld.” All those comedies were multi-cams.
Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. The difference between multi-cam and single-cam comedies is that the former is “shot before a live audience” while the latter is shot like a drama. Multicams have laughter while single cams do not. Of course, there are variations on this which can be some sort of hybrid. Notable was “M*A*S*H,” which was a single-cam but with a laugh track.
Right now, the only network that remains committed to the multi-cam is CBS, which has the top-rated comedy in “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s also the highest rated off-network comedy on cable. But CBS is beginning to dabble more and more in the single-cam world (it has two such shows for the fall, “Young Sheldon” and “Me, Myself and I”).
NBC has tried a few, and I am not sure whether the return of “Will & Grace” will be multi-cam as was the original. FOX has rejected them, although its two most successful non-animated comedies (“Married with Children” and “That ’70s Show”) were multi-cams. ABC’s recent success with family comedies is taking a traditional multi-cam format and turning it single-cam.
So how did we go from an 18-comedy schedule to a network world of mostly singlec-ams? I’m gonna spitball, so please no attacks, but I’m happy for feedback.
One theory that I have had about network television over the past decade or so is this notion of “cable envy” on the part of many network executives. There’s a disconnect between critical success, which favors the more obscure, narrow and artsy projects, and the need to attract a large broadcast audience.
A corollary to this is the drift away from the classic sitcom formula and a move toward other forms of the half-hour. When I was in the game, I would distinguish among a variety of half hours. There was the classic sitcom of setup: a situation at the beginning and resolve it in a smart, funny and unexpected way where the middle part was connecting all the dots. “Seinfeld” and “Frasier” were two of the best examples, but this form defined comedy for decades.
I started to see other half-hours. The first was the “dramedy,” which was a drama with comedic elements. There were “warmedies,” which were meant to make you smile rather than laugh out loud, and “sadedies” which were sort of depressing with a dark humor. Finally, there were “comamas,” which were comedies with dramatic elements. All of these forms favored the more cinematic single-camera format.
Comedies also started to get a bit more serialized, so this notion of setting up a situation and delivering on a satisfying conclusion started to lose favor.
The trend toward single-cam shows is also a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that there are fewer mentors in the multi-cam universe. Some of the best multi-cam creators, like Steve Levitan, have moved over to the single-cam side.
Multi-camera shows are more like little plays, and there is more audience involvement. It breaks the fourth wall a bit. Because they is more dependent on laughs, they can often feel like joke machines. Once you know the characters really well, a la “Seinfeld,” “Big Bang” or “Modern Family,” you are laughing as much at these people you love as you are at the jokes. I think that’s why multi-cam pilots feel off-putting today. They also require more over-the-top acting, whereas singlec-ams, with the exception of some of the ABC family comedies, can have somewhat more authentic characters.
Finally, with the ubiquity of comedy options, including easy access to all the multi-cam classics like “Roseanne,” “Friends,” “Murphy Brown,” etc., etc., etc., the bar is quite high for the next truly great multi-cam.
I could go on, but I will stop now and I guess, GM, my answer is: Beats me.
Comment on Twitter @maskedscheduler or email me and tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for last night’s TV, it’s probably a little too late, but after two seasons of allowing the executive producer of “So You Think You Can Dance” to ruin one of the classiest reality competitions, it was great to see it return in its old format with the right judges. I wish it well.